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Union Branding

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While crawling around the vastness of the internet the other day looking for some design inspiration, I came across a pretty cool company in San Francisco. They had a beautiful website, they offered cutting edge technology, a drive to help new entrepreneurs, a sense of community and social engagement, friendly knowledgeable staff and a ton of links to industry related resources and topics.
Pretty great. But what impressed me most was that this wasn’t a digital startup or Google lab experiment. What struck me the most was that this company was a credit union. Yeah, a credit union. You know – those scrappy financial institutes that seem to only exist on the outskirts of major cities next to an old windmill.

If that’s your current perception of a credit union, you’re probably not alone. CU’s in Ontario have been having a bit of an image problem lately. But this notion of the credit union as a sleepy mom and pop operation couldn’t be further from the truth. CU’s are all around and in major urban centers offering great competitive banking rates and products, the best customer service in the country (Credit unions have taken home the Ipsos Best Banking Award for overall Customer Service Excellence for nine consecutive years), putting profits back into the company (not into shareholder pockets) to make better products while doing great work for the local community raising money for charities and hospitals.

I know. Amazing right? So how come nobody really knows about them?

A recent survey commissioned by the Credit Unions of Ontario revealed that only one in five Ontarians (19 per cent) named a credit union when asked about financial institutions they are aware of. When probed, only one third (36 per cent) of respondents understand the types of services credit unions offer, how they function and how they differ from other financial institutions.

The battle for brand recognition, awareness and relevance has been going on for quite some time for credit unions, but it’s starting to hit a fever pitch at this moment. Fighting against the bigger banks for a slice of audience attention is getting pretty damn tough. On top of that, the bigger banks and the CU’s are in a dogfight for the holy grail of customer.
The young, shiny and profitable Gen Y. – Those born between the early 80’s and the 2000’s. Getting this demographic in the door is not only tricky, but critical.

A lack of younger demographics is a big pain point for CU’s right now, both in Canada and the US. One branch manager I spoke to in Ontario said that 63% of his members are 50 plus. The other 38% were 70 plus! So bringing in these young customers isn’t just good for CU business but essential for their future survival. Hey, no pressure.

Any magic bullets for this? Not really (unless it’s silver and you’re shooting a werewolf. ) That said, I think within all of this there is a real opportunity in front of CU’s that can help them improve their image, create a better user experience and start some great engagements with Gen Y’s.

When doing a bit of researching for this article, what I found interesting is that credit unions in both the US and Canada were also looking at another new type of target for their future growth – Start Up businesses and Entrepreneurs. This is an area that they’ve usually stayed away from in the past but the startup movement has gained massive momentum globally and shows no sign of slowing down. And guess who is leading the charge in new startups in Canada? Yup. Millennials.

According to the results of an Intuit Canada survey released October 9 last year, millennials, are more than twice as likely than the Canadian average to want to start a business within the next year. The poll found that while 8% of Canadians overall were interested in starting a new venture, 16% of millennials expressed a similar sentiment.

On top of that, according to a recent article in the Toronto Star, the annual enrollment numbers for the Schulich School of Businesses Entrepreneurship program have shot up from 135 to 255 students. Ellen Fishcher, director of Schulichs entrepreneurship program, is expecting about 20% of their MBA students to take courses in entrepreneurship.

So, herein lies an opportunity for CU’s.

I see CU’s and the entrepreneurial spirit going together like Han and Chewbacca. CU’s give back to the communities to make them stronger. Gen Y’s are socially conscious both locally and globally. Gen Y’s want a better, more personal style of customer service. CU’s are all about personal service and have proven their the best at it year after year. CU’s have members, not clients. Gen Y’s don’t want to be seen as another number padding a shareholders wallet. Oversimplifying? Maybe. But there are definite parallels that emerge when comparing the vision and mission of a local CU to the needs and vision of an entrepreneurial minded millennial.

And it’s within these parallels that an opportunity opens for CU’s to grab hold and position themselves as not just the best financial choice for Gen Y’s to help launch their new start up, but a place to go to for further financial knowledge and become a trusted partner.

I know I know. Easier said than done. Any business evolution is a daunting task, but some CU’s in California have risen to the challenge. Some of the best CU brand work has been coming from the US lately and there are some definite lessons to be learned by CU’s in Ontario.

Lets start with the good folks at Bridge Bank in San Francisco.

1. Look the part – Improving your Design.

The time had come for Bridge Bank to update their brand look and feel to more accurately represent the full business banking experience available to their current customers and potential new ones. Working with brand agency Chemistry Club, they embarked on a 17 month brand evolution initiative, culminating with the introduction of an updated logo, corporate website and tagline “Be bold, venture wisely”. Their brand messaging made it more obvious that Bridge Bank understood certain challenges younger entrepreneurs face with financing for new ideas and business ventures and that they can provide customized solutions for their endeavours, help them solve challenges and more importantly, be a trusted partner.

The new visual interpretation for the brand involved great photography, better content and easier user navigation and experience.

I spoke with Ryan Barringer, Sr. Vice President of Marketing at Bridge Bank to ask how successful the new brand launch was. Turns out, pretty good.

• Within nine months of the brand launch and awareness campaign, website traffic from new visitors increased by 100%, and the bounce rate was reduced by 48%

• Within eight months, over 100 new leads were generated through the new site resulting in increased pipeline activity throughout the bank.

• Deposit market share (2012 – 2013, Bay Area) increase of 29%

• Accelerated rate of client acquisition (increase of 50% from 2012 – 2013), as a result of increased lead activity

Lets be honest. Financial institutes aren’t really known for great web design or engaging brand esthetics. A lot of their design is still stuck in the lost landscape of web 2.0. But Bridge Bank saw design as an important tool. Not window dressing. They knew the changing tastes of a younger audience and used design as a strategic maneuver that was necessary to help drive the results they wanted and galvanize their brand message to their target audience.

2. Act the part: Bring the brand experience in the branch.

All brands need to be consistent throughout all their forward facing touchpoints from print to web to mobile to video. But when it comes to environments sometimes things fall a bit short aside from a new sign with the company logo and a new paint job.
Financial institutes talk about how they are jacked into the latest banking technology like photographing your cheque for depositing and mobile accessibility. All of this is great and necessary because customers are always on the move and you need to be where they are. But you know where else your customers are? Your branch. ( I’m may be going against popular belief here, but I don’t think we’ll be hearing the death rattle of the bricks and mortar branch for a while yet).

We’ve seen great leaps in branded retail environments like the Apple stores and MEC and the Bay. But banks and credit unions still have some catching up to do.

Umpqua Credit Union based in San Francisco, has already begun the chase. They’ve completely disrupted the convention of how a bank branch should be with their new flagship location. It features mobile concierges, iPads, interactive touch screens, outdoor seating and a free loaner commuter bike. They hold networking events and speaker series. They have entrepreneurs come in and talk about their successes and how the credit union has helped them. Missed the event? Don’t worry. They posted it on their vimeo account. What’s unique here in the business model is they give back to the community not just in donations and sponsorships but with knowledge, business insights, networking opportunities and fostering collaboration and interaction.

Umpqua took the core values of the credit union, community, relationships and great service and melded it into a physical space that everyone, especially young entrepreneurs would want to engage with.

This is just one other another example of how CU’s can outsmart the bigger banks. Can’t beat the competition on products or price? Beat them on the experience. You don’t have to take a wrecking ball to your current branch and start from the studs either. Start small, do some testing on new ideas for the space (Umpqua supplies The “Data Research Station” which offers San Francisco businesses access to public and proprietary third-party resources and some different communication technology).

New communications don’t even have to be that high tech. Umpqua has a simple phone

in the middle of the room that has a direct line to the CEO. Ok, your CEO might not want that, but that’s the benefit of being a CU, you can experiment. See what sticks, get feedback and start growing that brand experience within. How many of the big bank branches have the flexibility or creativity to try new things?

3. Speak the part.

They say talk is cheap. Well that all depends on who the conversation is with. If you’ve built a great new image for your brand online that is now reflected in your branch experience, what new ideas and insights are you offering to your customers in conversation? Are you going to the right places to find them in order to have these conversations? There are so many conventions, seminars and networking events that cater to the growth of these new businesses. Getting into the mix here is important (Half the battle here is just showing up). But if you show up after doing a little bit of homework, well then you’re a lot more dangerous.

For example, maybe you’ve just talked about your great rates and product offerings but maybe now you flex some start up knowledge. Next thing you know you’re giving some insights and thoughts on SRED tax credits or possible ideas on tech grant applications through resources such as the Funding Portal or the Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program (DTAPP). Maybe you talk about your new partnership with a start up event organization like Sprouter and how you supply sponsored passes to their events. Maybe you sponsor a successful clients launch party for their new product. Maybe you have a program where your CU will donate $10,000 to the best Kickstarter idea fostering local innovation. Business incubators and accelerators like Kinetic Cafe, Ember Business Exchange, MaRs and the Next 36 are just a handful of foundations nurturing and promoting the next generation of business leaders right now. There is no reason that a CU can’t inject their own unique ideas, creativity and knowledge into this growing space and be seen as valuable thought leaders themselves.

No one has all the answers as to how to crack the Gen Y customer code, but I see these San Fran Credit Unions as being on the right track.

Look the part (design) Act the part (branch experience) Speak the Part (dialogue) are just a few ideas of how CU’s in Ontario can take control of the public conversation surrounding them. On their own these strategies seem simple enough but fused together they start to tell a different brand story to their audience. One that seems relevant to the times and ready to work with the next wave of business.

Ontario Credit Unions have already begun to change the story with Cooperative Banking, a united cause involving over 30 credit unions to help educate people about the differences and benefits of banking with a credit union. It’s a great first step and a great platform to start a new conversation about Ontario CU’s. Getting people to listen to your message takes a bit of time and patience, but hey…all it takes is one simple conversation to start new movement.

See the sexiness of Umpqua branch here

Read about Bridge Banks Brand evolution here

Learn more about Credit Unions in Ontario

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